New Zealand Defies Myths About Farmed Fish

In my career I’ve bounced around gaining experience one year here one year there, from Rwanda to Hong Kong and many more in between, until I found my niche and passion working for sustainability. As the Executive Chef at Monterey Bay Aquarium, I found a purpose, and my work here has afforded me incredible opportunities to do things like fly to New Zealand and see an industry that strives to be the most sustainable salmon farms on the planet.

Salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds have minimal environmental impact on the beautiful blue New Zealand waters (Courtesy Ōra King Salmon)

For the better part of my life I can remember hearing that farmed fish is bad. Enter the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch rating system, which reviews, assesses and helps in part to guide the management of responsible fisheries around the world, both wild and farmed. Seafood Watch is a simple “stoplight” system that helps chefs and consumers make better decisions: Green (Best Choice) – Yellow (Good Alternative, if you absolutely cannot find green) and Red (Avoid). 

The Seafood Watch Aquaculture Standards are based on 10 areas of potential environmental impact, and includes such things as wastes discharged from farms, chemicals used, the relative environmental impacts of the feed ingredients, escapes of farmed fish into the wild, and disease transfer between farm populations and wild fish

The feed given to the Ora Kings is specially designed from traceable ingredients (Courtesy Ōra King Salmon)

New Zealand’s salmon farming industry is characterized by its small scale of production and the culture of a historically established species (Chinook salmon) that is currently unaffected by disease or parasite outbreaks. Effluent (sewage discharge) and habitat impacts have been well-studied and shown to be minor. Chemical use is minimal. And with deliberate government stocking of Chinook salmon in New Zealand, escapes from salmon farms also have a low risk of significant impact. Overall, the final recommendation for New Zealand Chinook salmon farmed in both marine and freshwater net pens is a green “Best Choice” on Seafood Watch.

A hands-on approach during harvest of Ora King salmon in New Zealand (Courtesy Ōra King Salmon)

Over the years the farmed seafood industry has begun a revolution, if you will, into the realm of sustainability. And New Zealand’s industry currently shines in the world of salmon with a focus on being stewards of their environment, treating the fish with integrity, and producing – in my personal opinion – a product that rivals its wild counterpart.

Ōra King farmed salmon enjoy low stocking density in the clear waters of the Marlborough Sounds (Courtesy Ōra King Salmon)

Salmon has become one of the most widely consumed aquatic proteins on the planet. In a perfect world, there would be a balance of farmed and wild fish. Wild fish as we know it today is nearly the last wild commercially bought protein on Earth. The last wild hunt! We have commercialized and domesticated almost every other widely consumed protein, from cows to pigs to even venison. Long ago, fish was a rarity, and while we now enjoy it at the ready in many shapes, forms and preparations, there could come a day when yet again it is hard to find and reserved for the few not the many. We need to begin asking now, “Where did my fish come from, was it caught or raised in a sustainable way?”

How a small scale New Zealand salmon farm operation works in tune with the natural environment (Courtesy Ōra King Salmon)

Asking these questions is demanding traceability, and traceability remains one of the biggest challenges in seafood. Imagine for one moment, you’re at a fair and purchase a bag of cotton candy. (Just wait, this pertains I promise!) On that bag of cotton candy you’ll undoubtedly find the following: date of expiration, location of origin, ingredients, allergens, company name as well as state approvals/provisions. Seems normal enough, right?

Now imagine you’re at your favorite sushi restaurant, you order your sushi and it arrives at your table looking incredible, dig in! WAIT!!! What’s missing? You have no idea where it was caught, by whom, when, how it was processed, in what facility, even what that fish itself ate. These and a host of other unknowns plague the seafood industry, yet we eat it blindly because we trust the chef who, broadly speaking, knows none of the same.

A sashimi dish using Ōra King Salmon by Makoto Tokuyama Chef-Owner of Cocoro in Auckland New Zealand (Courtesy Ōra King Salmon, ©Michael Bradley)

It’s been one of the hardest things for me to imagine, that I, one person, can make a difference with my individual choices. But imagine this: You ask your local chef, “Is this fish on your menu fished or farmed in an environmentally sustainable way?”

The author, Executive Chef Matt Beaudin of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, line-fishing in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand (Courtesy Matt Beaudin)

Restaurants and fish mongers may tell you what they think you would like to hear, but then tomorrow someone else asks, and then again and again, and before long people have begun to push change. The team realizes this is now important, this is something people are using to drive their decisions as well as spend their dollars. Soon it will become a point of pride for the operation to sell only the most sustainable and responsibly sourced seafood in their establishment.

The future will only change if we make it so. People will sell what we let them, chefs will serve what they think we want to eat, and sustainability programs will depend on people like me and you to ask: “Are you serving sustainable seafood?” I for one am glad to know I have partners in science looking out for our future, and sustainable seafood warriors like New Zealand’s salmon industry who produce an incredible farmed product while protecting wild fish populations. The future can be bright, decades from now people can still enjoy the fish we have today, but only if we demand that the sun will rise on cleaner waters with happier fish.

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